Looted arms fortify rebels' fighting spirit

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The Independent Online
It might be art, a monumental modern metal sculpture, but is the handiwork of the unknown agents who torched an armoury containing at least half a dozen anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of army helmets. The skeletal barrels of the anti-aircraft guns point up through what was the roof as smoke eddies from timbers still burning in the military barracks in Vlora.

People living near the complex, which was trashed by leaders of the revolt in southern Albania, are said to have moved out for the moment; the building next door is filled with tons of ammunition. Green boxes are piled up to the ceiling, and the floor is littered with hand grenades, mortar bombs, and artillery and tank shells.

We scurry back shrieking "No!" as our guide picks up a rocket-propelled grenade and waves it around proudly.

Another room is filled with anti-tank mines, while the debris outside includes ammunition belts, training rifles and gas masks. A captain in the Albanian army surveys the scene and removes the RPG from our over- enthusiastic guide. He says about 50 of the 200 soldiers stationed here have abandoned the government in favour of the "people".

One is Major Dalip Done. "We are not against the people, we are against the government," he says, making no mention of President Sali Berisha's offer of an amnesty to those who lay down their weapons. "Everyone here has arms, and we are all ready to fight."

The people of Vlora, along with their compatriots in a large chunk of southern Albania, were first roused to anger when the pyramid schemes run by allies of President Berisha collapsed, swallowing their life-savings. They wanted their money back but Mr Berisha ordered the police to crack down on the anti-pyramid protests, which fired the crowds' anger.

Yesterday, protesters in Vlora organised the printing of leaflets in Albanian and English which they thrust on the foreign press and which seemed to be the closest thing to an official reaction.

"Berisha go away! You are crazy. People will win against you. You can't kill the heroic people of Vlora. We want new elections," the leaflets read. But it is by no means certain that a political solution, other than the resignation of Mr Berisha, will enable Tirana to restore order. "In Vlora, people are fighting the government, but not because they want to make a government," said Geni, a young man passing an anti-Berisha rally in Vlora.

The protests do not seem to have thrown up any political leaders and the doings of the opposition leaders in Tirana do not seem to weigh heavily on the people of the rebellious coast. It is difficult to see Mr Berisha resolving the situation by talking or by shooting.

The problem would be finding any "rebels" to negotiate with. There are no organised structures. "In Vlora there are two factors: the criminals and the average people. The criminals are doing the looting and the average people don't like that. But when it comes to the police and the authorities, they are united," said an outsider who has lived in the town for years. They all hate Mr Berisha.

The military prospects are worse, even without the international opprobrium an assault would bring. Mr Berisha's army is clearly unhappy at the prospect of a battle, judging by the demeanour of soldiers manning positions in the south.

The soldiers are badly paid. Many lost money in the pyramid investment schemes which triggered the unrest, and few would relish a fight with their own countrymen. Second, the "rebels" in the south are well-armed (with hardware stolen from looted barracks) and extremely determined. Third, how to impose order by force - is the army supposed to shell Vlora, or Saranda, for example?

Mr Berisha has lost control of about 10 per cent of Albania already. Along at least two roads, government forces have pulled back since Thursday, which is not a good omen for Mr Berisha.

Berisha faces new demands

Tirana (AP) -- Armed protesters holding several southern towns and opposition politicians in Tirana both issued new demands a day after an agreement in which President Sali Berisha agreed to a 48-hour halt in offensive military operations.

European diplomats who met Mr Berisha said he refused to consider elections any time soon, or allowing Socialists - the former communists - into the government.

Rene Van der Linden, deputy chief of the Council of Europe, from The Netherlands, said of a meeting with Berisha: "Firstly, he underlined the necessity to continue political dialogue. Secondly, he wants to use only peaceful means. A coalition with the Socialist Party is not accepted, and, in the short term, there's no room for new elections."